The Author as Cartographer:
Spatiality in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Topology of a Phantom City (1977) Glenn S. Ritchey III
English Department, University of Central Florida

    French novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922 – 2008) gained notoriety chiefly as an innovator and discordant in the literary world. His disjointed, obsessive, prose would become the foundation for the postmodern “nouveau roman” movement, of which many would dub him the progenitor. A rudimentary primer for Robbe-Grillet’s work would describe him as less concerned with characterization outside of a central player (often the narrator), but instead focusing on the surface material experience. Robbe-Grillet penned typically flat characters with capricious or repetitive names or named characters only by initials or arbitrary letters. Consequently, his oeuvre focuses on how textual space functions to serve abstract storytelling while maintaining an interest in crafting a “real” presence, with works like La Jalousie exemplifying his prose style. The following lines outline a uniform Robbe-Grillet sentence, in this case, hinting toward an attentive narrator, joined by his wife and friend, at a dinner party on a colonial plantation: “[t]he space between A . . ’s left hand and Franck’s right hand is approximately two inches. The shrill cry of some nocturnal carnivore, sharp and short, echoes again toward the bottom of the valley, at an unspecified distance” (49). The tension, banality, and detail-oriented style work to signify a jealous spouse whose contempt manifests vis-a-vis fixations on occupied space as it contrasts ownership and the animalistic nature that calls out from an ill-defined distance.
        Despite affection from renowned literary critic Roland Barthes and scholars like Bruce Morrisette, Robbe-Grillet has faded from the broader critical discourse. Decades from his zenith, contemporary critical studies mostly seem to lead Robbe-Grillet’s work to in-passing mentions of style that are often dismissive and seldomly curious about investigating what other theoretical qualities linger in his novels. Robbe-Grillet’s focus on atmosphere over the conventional character-driven dynamics necessitates new ways of interacting with his work and the “nouveau roman” as newer theoretical focuses have developed over the last forty years. Accordingly, close readings of novels like Topologie d’une Cité Fantôme (Topology of a Phantom City) reveal enough spatial components to necessitate a closer examination of spatiality in Robbe-Grillet’s text in the interest of expanding observations on both the abstract nouveau roman novel and spatial theory.
      At its core, Robbe-Grillet’s Topology of a Phantom City reads like a fever dream. The novel casts the reader as an archaeologist in the middle of a restoration project, piecing together disparate pieces of rubble strewn about a city in conflicting modes of functionality. As the retellings begin to operate as varying interpretations told out of order, the details of the excavations argue amongst themselves about whether the debris details a murder, a sacrifice, or rape. The result leads the reader along a trail to uncover the events, be they historical tellings from a guided tour, a theatrical production of mythic proportion, or a murder perpetrated by the reader-narrator. All of the above stand applicable, under layers of delusion and inconsistencies, as the novel begins with the reader-narrator stating, “[b]efore I fall asleep, the city again . . . Before I fall asleep, still stubbornly persistent, the dead city . . . .” (9).
     My reading of the novel builds on Robert Tally Jr’s work on spatial mirroring and literary cartography to distinguish Robbe-Grillet as a literary cartographer. Additionally, I feature the concepts of some of the significant theorists outlined by Tally in Spatiality so to position and highlight Robbe-Grillet’s spatial qualities in a broader context. My inquiry considers Frederic Jameson’s cognitive mapping, the “practical reconquest of a sense of place” (qtd. in 155), and Edward Soja’s thirdspace, “the blended real and imagined spaces” (160). Furthermore, my analysis focuses on other works, like writing on Robbe-Grillet by Raylene Ramsay to aid contextualizing the author, and Rebecca Collins’ writing on aural spatiality, the transformative effect of sound on space, notably in the performance environment.
     Robert Tally Jr. posits a distinction of literary cartography in Spatiality, later elaborating on the author’s position as a cartographer in “Spatiality’s Mirrors: Reflections on Literary Cartography.” In the latter, Tally introduces the concept in opposition to a mimetic quality and on the condition that “the act of writing presupposes multiple acts of figuration.” He further states that the writer “creates a representation of the world presented in the work, but this representation cannot be a simple reflection of the ‘real’ world in a more figurative form” (“Spatiality’s Mirror, Reflections on Literary Cartography.” 558). Amid the pages of Topology of a Phantom City, we find one example of the figurative quality which Tally specifies in the segment titled “First Space: Construction of a ruined temple to the goddess Vanadis,” when a nondescript reader (described in “VI: The inscription”) studies a guidebook that details the volcano that destroyed the ancient city of Vanadium in 39 B.C., “[a]ll the buildings were swallowed up by the flames . . . Meanwhile the entire population had already perished, killed in a matter of seconds by the conflagrating air” (31). Robbe-Grillet evokes the image of Pompeii in his description of the ruined ancient city of Vanadium that predates the former as Tally articulates, thus Robbe-Grillet’s text does not attempt to craft a reflection of Pompeii but as a model to build the foundation of his story on. Likewise, the novel contains other areas that boast distinctive features by pointing out elements like “Roman tiles” (50) and other instances that note spatial details that minor characters miss, which reflect a transfiguration in the narrative. For instance, when a young boy on a guided tour, David, misses “the reddish brown fresco, faded and eroded with the years, that is painted on the back wall” (52).
      Appropriately, the Graeco-Roman distinctions in Topology stand to interpellate the Western canon as Robbe-Grillet becomes a cartographer and apparent historicist. The parallels to Pompeii indeed read like a suitable stand-in for the ravages of World War II within continental Europe as the novel describes destitute locations, uncertainty, and regeneration. The novel maintains a fixation on war, told out of order where the opening page tells of “the dead city . . . after the fire, after the war” (9), related to the historical-based recitals in the theater or “the generative cell” (33) that exist in a fantastic blend of pre-and-post-civilization as, “contemporary graffiti painted crudely in various languages, one of them . . . dating from the last war” (34). Given the performance’s adornment in Graeco-Roman aesthetics, “Roman-style” (48), the performance supposes war and calls toward the ancient texts to substantiate it in a grander context, blended with the contemporary telling as denoted by the graffiti the reader-narrator details. Moreover, the result of the author’s practice establishes a basic iteration of what Edward Soja would elaborate on with the concept of thirdspace, denoting “the blended, real-and-imagined places, where Firstplace would be the ‘real’ material world and Secondspace would refer to ‘imagined’ representations of space” (Spatiality 160).
    In Spatiality, Tally outlines one interpretation of Jameson’s evolving idea of cognitive mapping, “a means by which a writer can supersede the individual’s sense of place or placelessness by projecting a supra-individual image of the world-system . . . [that] undergirds the project of literary representation . . . whether allegory or . . . supposedly realistic writing” (48). For the infamously anti-allegorical, anti-sentimental Robbe-Grillet, thirdspace and cognitive mapping fits interestingly in his literature. As Raylene Ramsay explores the ethics of Robbe-Grillet’s writings relative to the holocaust, it becomes apparent in his meta-autobiography, Le Miroir qui revient, that much of Robbe-Grillet’s writing see influence from Germany occupying France during World War II. Ramsay writes that Robbe-Grillet “claims to have decided to write in order to explore the implications of his own manipulation by signs, and his acceptance of ‘voluntary’ work in Germany in a munitions factory, in unquestioning obedience to the Law” and unquestioning obedience to his parents, eventually leading him to break away from his formerly close family (Ramsay 74). Applying Ramsay’s anecdote to Jameson’s cognitive mapping outlines precision in how Robbe-Grillet expresses war in three areas of the novel.
    Moreover, I venture to utilize Jameson’s definition of cognitive mapping related to Kevin Lynch’s imageability, which also includes wayfinding, “practices used by city dwellers to navigate urban space, using landmarks and boundaries for guidance” (Spatiality 160). The reader-narrator interacts with the surroundings of the text to imply familiarity with certain surroundings a la Lynch’s principles as there are familiar areas of the city that maintain variability. Namely, recognize how Robbe-Grillet’s use of language in Topology implies familiarity, here, considering “the” versus “a,” when he writes:

        a few paces farther on, past the Grand Theater that occupies the
        center of the plaza, its portico with the triangular pediment
        facing this way. One of the column must be undergoing
        restoration because it is sheathed in a scaffolding of metal tubes
        forming sort of clumsy cage around the shaft, the bars projecting
        unequally in all directions. (45)

    Of course, other aspects of spatiality reveal themselves in the text. Most interestingly, however, comes the textual effect in the form of aural spatiality. In “Aural Spatiality and Sonic Materiality: Attending to the Space of Sound in Performances by Ivo Dimchev and Alma Söderberg,” Rebecca Collins outlines the sonic influence that sound has in a given space, in this case, Collins writes on the effect of sound in performance theatrical performance spaces, between audience and spectator, through studying works by Ivo Dimchev and Alma Söderberg. Collins contextualizes the intent of aural space in such instances, as noted by Erika Fischer-Lichte, who theorized, “aural space dissolves the boundaries of the performative space” (qtd in Collins 166). Collins uses Fischer-Lichte, among others, to outline a recognition of “the potential of the aural to alter the performative space and generate a relationship between the spectator and performer . . . a theorisation of aural space influenced by tonality and structures of attention” (166). Collins’ study proves intriguing based on the generative movements in Robbe-Grillet’s novel’s structure. Throughout Topology of a Phantom City, movements, spaces,  and delirium, are often the effect of varying aural intervention. According to Collins, “the vibrational quality that emerges could be argued as one able to bring new spatial forms into being, prompting a consideration of the material relations operating between performer and audience across the space” (171). Per this distinction, one considers one of the threads of Robbe-Grillet’s story, that the events depicted in the pages are debatably instances that occurred or are actually within the three walls of a theatrical production:

        in sudden silence that has just fallen—with all the actors and    
        chorus singers completely frozen, the whole orchestra in
        abeyance, even the audience holding their breath as they sit
        dumbfounded at the beauty of the spectacle—a heartrending cry
        shrills out . . . most of the spectators thought at first that this yell
        of pain, uttered at a screaming pitch . . . was part of the play. And
        some time elapses . . . before a swelling murmur of confused
        words and various sounds starts to build up around the point
        where the drama broke out. (74-75)

The scream, the result of a murder, shows that the killer chose the moment of attack with a precision that would not bring suspicion to their act. In doing so, rendering the audience unknowing, the assailant then makes a clean getaway as the audience attempts to reorient itself in the befuddlement brought on by how the scream interacts with the aural space.

Works Cited

Collins, Rebecca. ““Aural Spatiality and Sonic Materiality:
    Attending to the Space of Sound in Performances by Ivo Dimchev
    and Alma Söderberg.” Contemporary Theatre Review, Vol. 28, No.
, 2018, 165–178.

Ramsay, Raylene. “WRITING AND ETHICS:
    Romance Studies, Vol. 19, No. 1, June 2001, 71 – 85.

Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Topology of a Phantom City. Translated by
    J.A. Underwood. Grove Press, 1976.

Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Two Novels by Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy & In
    the Labyrinth
. Translated by J.A. Underwood. Grove Press, 1965.

Tally Jr., Robert. Spatiality, Routledge, 2013.

Tally Jr., Robert. “Spatiality’s Mirror, Reflections on Literary
    Cartography.” English Language and Literature, vol. 61, No. 4,
    2015, pp. 557–576.